Tips for a Successful School Year from 20-plus Durham Educators

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School year tips
Illustration by Christin King, designer at @ck.creations

*Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity

Practice means progress, not perfection

Photo by Cortland Galloway

When creating a schedule, set realistic goals. Some find it helpful to allot 30 minutes to an hour a day for each subject. Other students may choose to study science and math on Mondays and Wednesdays, then review English and history on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I set high academic goals for all of my scholars just as I would in the classroom. When developing academic goals, I am mindful that technology is not always reliable, and students may lack necessary computer skills. When activities do not go as planned, I am patient and transparent with students because we are truly all in this together!

This is a challenge for everyone: teachers, students and families. It’s important to be flexible. As my principal, Dr. Sheldon Lanier, says, ‘We are building the plane as we are flying it.’ Families can strive for success by focusing on progress. Set small goals, such as studying for 30 minutes or attending office hours twice a week. Families should hold students accountable for missing assignments. Also remember to celebrate small wins – learning how to navigate different digital tools such as Canvas, Google Meet or Zoom is no small feat. Practice means progress, not perfection. To everyone navigating this new reality: Hang in there.” – Sonya West, seventh grade science teacher, Sherwood Githens Middle School

Do something spontaneous and fun

I have found that children and adults are most successful when they make an effort to find a balance of routine and spontaneity. With everything being digital at the moment, even I have a difficult time wrapping my head around my to-do’s if I don’t write it down on paper first. For students, having a physical notebook or journal could help organize their goals, thoughts, assignments, etc., while also providing the opportunity to be driven and motivated by completing tasks – an essential life skill. A great daily routine for your student ‘outside’ of virtual school needs to include: a good night’s sleep, eating healthy food, going outside, completing school work, revisiting their to-do’s and – the most important – doing something spontaneous and fun.” – Margaux H. Holly, fourth grade teacher, Parkwood Elementary School

Communicate, communicate and communicate

Students flourish when given structure. Establish routines and schedules so they know what to expect and when to expect it. In a home environment, students need an area where they can focus and not be distracted. That does not mean lying in bed or on the couch. Those are comfortable places, but not conducive to listening and responding to others attentively. A table or desk works much better. As a given, TVs and phones should be off or distant to minimize distractions. More than one student or child in a room may interfere with concentration as well. 

Some students actually excel and find their ‘voice’ in the online classroom. Your child may be one of them. Learning can be difficult and often is, even in person. Before I start teaching subject matter, I work on instilling self-efficacy. Help your child overcome by encouraging them, believing in them and advocating for them. Also, believe in yourself. As I tell my students every year, ‘You teach me how you want to learn.’ You already know how your child learns best. Use that to your advantage. Communicate your child’s needs to their teacher. Communicate any difficulties you or your child may be having. Communicate, communicate and communicate!” – Brandon Daniel, fifth grade science and math teacher, Burton Magnet Elementary School; 2019-2020 DPS Teacher of the Year

Create a plan

Students benefit from routine; students should try to have a designated workspace. If they are working at different locations around the house, their brain may not make the same connection to the material they’ve already learned, and distractions may increase. It’s important for high school students to learn to advocate for themselves. Adults can help their students practice what they are going to say to their teacher or find the proper way to put it into an email. Guide them when asking for help if they have clarifying questions about assignments, are going to have conflicts between their home life and virtual learning, and/or feel as if they are getting behind. Creating a plan for long-term assignments or missed work is a great strategy to reduce feeling overwhelmed; adults can help students talk through their assignments and create a plan for their work.” – Sarah Streyle, upper school mathematics department, Hill Learning Center 

‘Same, same, but different’

Parents: Slow down and simplify your schedule. You need to be more organized this year in order to follow the COVID-19 protocols we have in place on campus. It’s important to allow yourself the time to get you and your child ready for the day with as little stress and rushing as possible. Make lunch the night before, get up 15 minutes earlier, have your child pick out their clothes before bed … whatever works for your family.

We have a phrase, acknowledging how COVID-19 has changed things: ‘Same, same, but different.’ We start with what is familiar and then we build on that by showing them what will be different. We introduce differences lightheartedly, though we always acknowledge that there might be some sadness or disappointment about the changes at first. We give them space to say that they miss something or are frustrated and also if something makes them nervous. They seem to be finding the new routines (now that they are becoming familiar) as pleasurable as the old ones!” – Betsy Evans, early childhood teacher, Montessori School of Durham

Relationships, rigor and relevance

Virtual learning is all about relationship building and constant check-ins. I have been in awe at the resiliency of my students. They email and text me daily to inquire about assignments. They ask to stay after class as needed. Relationships, rigor and relevance have always been three aspects of my instruction and my vision as an educator. I’ve been focusing a lot on relevant topics with my students; we recently started to analyze music and lyrics for English language arts skills. I have noticed that incorporating relevant topics with my students have made them more comfortable and confident in this uncomfortable setting. If I can get them talking, I can get them learning.” – Keaundra Robinson, eighth grade language arts teacher, Rogers-Herr Middle School; 2019 Rogers-Herr Teacher of the Year 

Keep joy in learning

My biggest piece of advice to parents, especially for those of young children, is to keep joy in learning, even when it is the opposite of what you are feeling. The early years of education lay the foundation for a child’s attitude about school and learning. Student attitudes about school greatly impacts their performance. While this is an extremely stressful and, at times, frustrating moment in time, we don’t want those feelings to trickle down to our children and have them begin to associate school and learning with stress and frustration. While there are days where we all want to explode, we need to remember our end goal – our children’s success. Happy students become motivated students who become successful students.” – Amber Shastri, kindergarten teacher, Immaculata Catholic School

Be an active participant 

Positivity is key as teachers are trying their hardest to provide quality instruction and build relationships with students in an entirely new fashion. Be proactive by reaching out to your teachers when you have questions about assignments or need additional support. We’re here for you! Finally, be an active participant. It is very easy to feel isolated in a remote learning environment. Engage with your teacher and peers during live classes, contribute to class discussions, and don’t be afraid to share your opinions!” – Kelsey Jones, eighth grade English language arts teacher, Lucas Middle School

Go beyond the admissions office’s marketing pitch

One thing to hold onto is that you, as a student, have the most leverage in the college applications process before you commit to attending a particular school. Before putting down that deposit, reach out to the admissions office and ask them how their institution is weathering this storm. Ask to sit in on a class to see how they are managing virtual learning. Reach out to professors and students for conversations that go beyond the admissions office’s marketing pitch.” – Stefan Waldschmidt, Upper School college counselor, Carolina Friends School

Prepare the night before

As a first grade teacher and a mom of two teenagers, I know how difficult virtual learning can be for families. But I’m excited about the opportunities it is giving us to discover new and innovative ways to deliver instruction.

Create a quiet learning spot for each child. Implement a calm, consistent morning routine so that your child is ready to learn when their first class starts. Prepare the night before: Make sure your child plugs in their computer, sets out learning materials, organizes their learning spot, etc.

If you have teenagers, empower them to communicate with their teachers – they can still copy you on emails. This is a great opportunity for them to take responsibility for their learning. Be patient with yourself, your children and the educators!” – Meg Reed, first grade teacher, Creekside Elementary

Keep moving!

During this abnormal year full of screens and sitting, it is critical that we take care of our health and wellness! We can do our best learning and work when we take care of our minds and bodies. In addition to daily time for physical activity, build in movement breaks in your daily routine – set a timer for one minute of movement every hour, go on a walk, take a stretch break, play your favorite song and dance, and remember to play and have fun (parents, too!) Whatever it takes, keep moving your body!”– Kristin Stroupe, Lower School PE teacher and varsity cross-country and track coach, Durham Academy 

Let your child be the ‘star’

Preschool in a hybrid model can be scary. I’ve found that doing a virtual home visit – I spend 30 minutes with each of my students, seeing whatever they choose to present on the screen – alayed many of the fears and gives us something to build a relationship with. Kids get my undivided attention, mask free. I’ve received pet parades, toy demonstrations and even read a story to an extended family in New York, all from my Durham dining room.

Teaching kids to use basic hand signals will show the class that you are engaged even while muted. Practice muting and unmuting the mic; in-class learners can be distracted by ambient noise. Let your child be the “star” on screen; kids enjoy seeing their classmates, not parents or empty chairs. Bringing flexibility and patience to each encounter will reduce stress and foster a spirit of cooperation. Remote or in class, sharing ideas, pictures and stories with classmates is key to building a learning community.” – Rose DeLaTorre, transitional kindergarten teacher, Triangle Day School

Never give up

Working in a distraction-free zone (if possible) is really helpful as well as staying organized by making to-do lists, maintaining focus and participating during class, and finally, communicating with their teachers regarding any help they may need.

Overall, I’ve seen many students succeed during remote learning because they have a positive attitude, ask a lot of questions, communicate with their teachers, collaborate with their peers on assignments and continue to persist through the challenges.

We are in uncharted territory, but all I can say is, ‘Never give up!’ We can’t predict or plan for the challenges we may face during remote learning, but stay persistent and self advocate! Communicate with teachers regularly and remain flexible, because things can change very quickly, as we learned this year.” – Jennifer Curry, sixth grade language arts teacher and English language arts department chair, Rogers-Herr Middle School

Use metacognition 

Attending school in a virtual setting definitely presents some unique challenges, but the keys to achieving success this year are similar to other school years: have a positive mindset; organize materials, workspace and assignments; break larger assignments into manageable chunks; advocate for yourself by seeking help from educators, parents and peers; and use metacognition – awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes – to recognize strategies that work. My students have benefited from creating an organized workspace to complete schoolwork. At Hill Learning Center, the middle school program focuses on teaching students to utilize executive functioning skills, like breaking larger projects into manageable chunks to reduce student anxiety and increase successful outcomes. We also ask students to use metacognition to identify effective strategies that help them learn and study.” Darius Horton, middle school language arts department, Hill Learning Center

Some productive struggle is essential to learning

Have a family meeting to establish expectations. Talk with your child(ren) about how the school day will go, talk about the schedule, talk about what could be challenging and brainstorm ideas of how to get through the challenges together. Create your own family agreement that everyone signs, and then post it in a visible place in the home.

Consider posting a schedule where your child can see what will be happening throughout the day. You can also add your child’s schedule to Google Calendar, and connect the calendar to an Alexa or Siri device that will read a reminder prior to online meetings or activities for your child. 

Consider using timers to help your child. Some children appreciate knowing how much more time is needed on an activity.  

Ask your child questions and have them share their thoughts while encouraging their independence so they can take ownership of their learning. Some productive struggle is essential to learning. Stepping in too quickly to help solve problems will deprive your child of the opportunity to learn, try new approaches and gain greater independence and confidence.” – Jenni Scoggin and fellow Lower School teachers, Carolina Friends School

The power of ‘yet’

Your family’s mental and physical health is the most important thing right now. Take advantage of breaks during the day or during the week. Make time for your family. If things get overwhelming, reach out to your teachers and let them know.

Have your student practice their typing skills outside of school. There are free programs available online, and many incorporate games.

Remember the power of ‘yet’! As we are all learning in new ways, we may need multiple opportunities to learn a concept. Remind students (and yourself) that it is OK if things aren’t perfect … yet. As long as we keep trying, we are doing great things.” – Elizabeth Gallegos-Moore, exceptional children’s instructor, Rogers-Herr Middle School

Don’t forget about paper and pencil

So many of my students tell me they don’t know how to do certain math problems, when they really mean they don’t know how to do them in their head. With all the digital resources schools are relying on, don’t forget about paper and pencil. Keeping supplies accessible encourages kids to actually use them, instead of feeling lost looking for a starting place. It’s also a good break from staring at a screen!” – Taylor Brown, seventh and eighth grade math and Math 1 teacher, Immaculata Catholic School 

Keep it fresh and interesting

Keep it simple. Make learning as accessible as possible for your child and the adults supporting them. Keep it inclusive. Make sure that students can be a part of the learning experience. Continue to bring their individual interests and perspectives into learning. This helps with keeping conversations and content fresh and interesting.” – Steven Mercado, second grade teacher and director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Triangle Day School 

Develop a passion

Turn on the camera when in a remote class. Teachers can’t gauge how you are doing or make adjustments if they are looking at black squares. It also minimizes the temptation to look at your phone. Hold yourself accountable to be engaged. And, don’t be afraid to ask questions – teachers welcome the interruption.

We will [still] be talking about the pandemic 20 years from now. What do you want your story to be? Instead of worrying about what you can’t do, consider this time a gift to learn something new, to develop a passion. If parents do this and encourage their children to do the same, this attitude will translate to success in their academics.” – Shannon Namboodri, instructor of engineering, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

Give students a stake in their own success

While these circumstances are not ideal, they are proving to be a catalyst for growth of team-oriented, self-sufficient and successful students. 

Students: prove to yourself, parents, teachers and classmates that you have something to offer, that you are willing to be a part of your team’s success, and remember that your team is there for you as well. Take your own learning seriously and stay busy – it will make the day go by faster, I promise.

Give students a stake in their own success. My students help decide class jobs – yes, believe me, there is still plenty of responsibility to go around! – consequences for positive and unfavorable behavior and what cool reinforcement they try to earn throughout the days and weeks. Simply put, what works is seeing the students not just for what they need, but also for what they have to offer.” – John Cappello, second grade grade teacher, Creekside Elementary School

Make connections

There is a tendency to only use learning management systems to monitor your child’s assignments and grades. Families can also use these systems (and what they overhear during a Zoom lesson) to discover what topics and vocabulary kids are taught in school. If you know your child is studying fractions, invite him to help measure the ingredients for dinner. If you know your child is learning about character, plot and setting, use this vocabulary when you talk about her favorite show. Making these connections makes learning more authentic and increases engagement.” – Jennifer Harrison, upper EL teacher, Morehead Montessori Magnet Elementary School 

Organize your online binder

Teachers are using everything from email, Canvas inbox, Remind messages, Smore newsletters, ClassDojo, Seesaw, PowerSchool and more to connect with students and families. Please get connected to classes, and make sure to read updates! 

If we were in the classroom, we would start the year off organizing binders. This year, I encourage all students/families to take some time to organize their Google drives. Make a folder for each class. Plan how students will title documents. Consider including their name and the subject in the title. Just like you would clean out binders, once a week go through your drive and make sure all items are labeled correctly and sorted/stored in the correct folders.” – Dorothy “Addie” Carr, eighth grade social studies teacher, Rogers-Herr Middle School

Send me an email

I encourage students to recognize that there will be challenges, try to problem solve and then learn from those experiences. I also encourage them to reach out to their teachers by sending an email with specific questions. As for keeping up with assignments, students need to clarify with each teacher where daily assignments for that class are posted on the website. Every night, students should review each class’s page to check for assignments. For long-term assignments, use a calendar, scheduling specific tasks to be completed by a certain time.” – Kerrie Goray, middle school language arts teacher, Hill Learning Center

Flexibility and improvisation

I believe students respond better when we admit that we’re all working together to figure this out. Kids need structure, of course, but I’m trying to let ‘structure’ take the form of clear expectations and plans for how we will handle it when things inevitably don’t go according to plan. Flexibility, improvisation and an open-hearted acknowledgement that, hey, it’s really tough right now, and we all need to be committed to one another in order to make it through.

I also think that students do much better when they feel personally invested. Assignments can feel like pulling teeth when teaching remote, but much less so when the student feels some ownership over the project.” – Austin Campion, upper school theater arts teacher and CFS Performing Arts Center director, Carolina Friends School 

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